Winter in Connemara

It’s been at least two years since I’ve been out of my native locale, Ireland’s exotic east coast. No better place, I know; still a change of scenery is good for the soul. So, as November surrendered, M and I, packed our gear into the chariot and headed way out west for a few days in Leenane, County Galway.

Crossing the Shannon, you can feel the fabric of the country shift. Athlone is downriver, the huddle of spires and domes sketched in the mist, a crown shimmering above the fading urbanity we are leaving behind.The words wild and west go well together, and hurtling along the stony spine of Roscommon, you begin to understand why. And the rain lives here.

Past Galway City and Oughterard, the mountains don’t gradually appear, but jump us from out of the drizzle, becoming somehow all the more majestic for it. The light of evening has already extinguished as we snake down the steep sides of Killary Harbour and into Leenane. Our hotel, Leenane Lodge lies a mile or so to the west, on the Galway side of the water. Nestled into the cliff face it beams a comforting glow across the slate waters of Killary Harbour.

Killary Harbour, described as Ireland’s largest fjord, or even Ireland’s only fjord, is ten miles long and up to a hundred and fifty feet deep. Killary means narrow inlet as Gaeilge. It was carved out of the mountains of Connemara during the last ice age over ten thousand years ago. It marks a spectacular border between two of Connaught’s counties, Mayo to the north, and Galway on the south. From our room we can look across the fjord in the morning at the Mweelrea range and Ben Gorm, the blue mountain. In fact Ben Gorm shifts through many colours in the shifting prism of the day, some of them even blue. Behind us are the Maamturk Mountains, and further west the exuberant spectacle of the Twelve Bens. Connemara is a name given to much of western Galway. It is a Gaeltacht, an Irish speaking area, the largest such in the country with twenty five thousand Irish speakers out of a population of just over thirty thousand. Con denotes the local Tuatha, or tribe, and na mara means of the sea.

The hotel dates back to the late eighteenth century when it opened as a coach inn. We had a room with a view, of course, and a little balcony perched above the fjord. As night fell, early enough with the encroaching mountains, it was time for the traditional December aperitif, a pint of Guinness, enjoyed in the cosy bar centred on a blazing turf fire. One could eat there, or adjourn to the adjacent restaurant. We chose the former, why change a winning team? I chose Chicken Ballotine on day one, rolled with a pudding and bacon stuffing, with potato cake and mushroom sauce. I had to be rolled out to the lobby myself afterwards. Over the next few days I moved on through the menu, which was quite a journey, one I hope to do again. There was a large residents lounge on the other side of the lobby, with well fed guests, and a well fed fire, and folk and ballad entertainment there later in the evening.

We awake to sunshine on the fjord, and good prospects for exploration and mountain gazing, one of my favourite pursuits. After a hearty breakfast, we take a walk on the Wild Atlantic Way which passes outside the hotel door. The route travels along the road for a bit, passing a tiny picturesque harbour with a trio of moored boats. About a quarter mile on a rough path rises to our left with a gradual climb to give a glorious elevated view of the fjord below. We climb a style by a singing gate, the wind playing ghostly Irish airs through its rusted bars, I swear! As we get a clear view of Mweelrea and the fjord’s mouth off to the northwest, the sky’s expression shifts again and a scowling dark veil makes towards us. So, we return whence we came, the gate now giving a medley of jigs and reels, making the road as the rain hits. And just as quickly, it’s gone again. Winter sun, soothes the blue waters of the fjord, and Ben Gorm tries on a new range of colours.

For the afternoon we drive towards Letterfrack. The road rises out of Killary into high peatland, framed by the Maamturks and the fabulous peaks of the Twelve Bens. There’s a right turn where we follow a coastal route through Tully Cross and Renvyle. Renvyle is a finger pointing into the angry sea. The landscape is alive with gulls, gannets, wind and waves. Sailing out on its promontory is the stark ruin of Renvyle Castle, built by the Joyce clan in the thirteenth century. Neighbouring clan, the O’Flaherties, captured it after massacring guests at a Joyce wedding. A more successful wedding in 1546 saw chieftain Donal O’Flaherty marry pirate queen Grace O’Malley. Grace inadvertently put a hole in her new home when her ship set off its canon in salute while moored offshore. After Donal’s murder two decades later, Grace was forced to leave the castle and return to Mayo. During the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Falco Blanco with a hundred men aboard was wrecked on the nearby reef. Survivors were held in the castle before being handed over to the English authorities. Up to three hundred Spanish survivors were executed in Galway City. After more than three centuries of excitement, Oliver Cromwell ordered destruction of the castle in 1650s and the O’Flaherties land was confiscated.

We follow the coastal road around to Letterfrack. There’s a visitor centre there, but I’m not sure it’s prepared for our visit. These are, after all, strange days. We park at the church and visit the Monastery Hostel which holds memories, some with the spirit of summers of love. We potter around a bit and share some words with the friendly proprietor. Below the church, the village forms, something of a chimera in a cold oasis. There’s a couple of bars, one with encouraging signs for traditional cigarettes. It looks cosy within, and I file it in my memory box.

We complete our loop by way of Kylemore Abbey. The abbey is home to Benedictine nuns who fled Belgium in the Great War. They came here in 1920 and set up house in Kylemore Castle, as it was then known. The castle was built fifty years earlier by English couple Mitchell and Margaret Henry who fell in love with the area when honeymooning here some decades before. One can see why. The gothic creation perfectly compliments the view, its reflection in the facing lake an illustration from a medieval romance.

The nuns established a school for girls which closed ten years ago. It now hosts academic and retreat programmes in partnership with Notre Dame University of Indiana, USA. You can visit the demesne, including parts of the abbey, its gothic church, family mausoleum and the surrounding walled Victorian Gardens between March and October with restricted access in winter.

Another trip down memory lane for us the next day. Up, to be precise, and rather a steep lane at that. We return to Letterfrack for our assault on Diamond Hill. Again, the visitor centre carpark confounds us, but we park in the forecourt anyway. Diamond Hill is an isolated peak of the Twelve Bens. Rising to one and a half thousand feet, it resembles the Great Sugarloaf behind my home in Bray, in size, shape and material. Its glittering quartzite gives it the name. The path is well maintained, with boardwalk and stone guarding against erosion. A path well travelled, but through such a green ocean of space that the sense of isolation, especially in the bleak mid winter, is profound.

We continue on to Clifden for refreshments. Clifden is the largest town in Connemara with a population of one and a half thousand. It seems a lot more, especially in season. There are a dozen pubs, plenty of cafes, shops and hotels. Clifden evolved in the early nineteenth century and knew truly interesting times in the early twentieth. In 1905 Guiglielmo Marconi built his first transatlantic wireless telegraphy station nearby. The first service connecting Europe to North America opened in October 1907. A railway was constructed to convey equipment, workers and visitors across the bog to the station. It carried celebrity aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919 after their sixteen hour flight from Newfoundland crashlanded in the bog nearby. It was the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic and ushered in the Air Age.

I get no kick in a plane
Flying too high with some guy in the sky
Is my idea of nothing to do
But I get a kick out of you

A statue of the aerodynamic duo stands in the town centre, across the road from the hotel bearing their name. The Marconi station was destroyed by republican irregulars during the Civil War and operations were transferred to Wales, and the railway subsequently obliterated.

We return in murky rain by way of Lough Inagh, the lake flooding the floor of a beautiful and lonesome valley. At its heart is Lough Inagh Lodge, a fine, remote hotel in the old fashioned way. It dates from 1880, when it was built as a fishing lodge. It was redeveloped by the O’Connor family as modern boutique hotel. I stayed here some dozen years back, on a midweek course in watercolour painting. I have always been a painter, but back then I was sadly lapsed, and the course reawakened my interest in painting. The scenery of Connemara has certainly given me much food for thought. I have a rich store of visuals which I will soon be working on, and a determination to return as soon as I can. Meanwhile, it’s back to the Leenane Hotel, and that winter aperitif.

I get no kick from cocaine
I’m sure that if I took just one more sniff
That would bore me terrifically too
But I get a kick out of brew

I Get a Kick Out of You was written by Cole Porter for the 1934 musical Anything Goes. First sung by Ethel Merman, there have been many covers since, including Frank Sinatra, Gary Shearston and most recently Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett.